Tensions rise as Brexit endgame looms

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Chronology of Brexit negotiations since new plans were introduced on October 2 by Boris Johnson. CECILIA SANCHEZ, SABRINA BLANCHARD/AFP

Tensions were always going to rise in the final stretch of the Brexit talks, but hostile briefings from London this week pushed the temperature to boiling point.

Some are left wondering whether British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and those around him really want a Brexit deal, or are simply going through the motions as they gear up for a general election.

The Conservative leader wants Britain to leave the EU on October 31, ideally with a deal, but Brussels says the plans he has presented fall far short of what is needed.

The mood soured dramatically with a series of combative briefings to the media on Monday and Tuesday from Downing Street accusing Germany and Ireland of blocking progress.

Johnson insists he will leave the EU with no deal if necessary, and one official briefing even threatened to cease cooperation with nations who sought to stop him.

European Council President Donald Tusk, who is known for his blunt approach, accused Johnson of trying to win “some stupid blame game”.

The briefings reflect the mixed messages emerging from Downing Street as the prospect looms of the Brexit negotiations ending in failure.

Without a deal, Johnson would be forced to ask the other 27 EU leaders to delay Brexit under a law passed by Members of Parliament last month – something he has said he will not do.

With a snap election likely in the coming months, he would have to explain a delay to angry voters, something made easier if the blame lies elsewhere.

“There are some in the UK who seem to be planning for a general election ahead of trying to plan to get a deal,” said Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

Anonymous briefings to journalists are not unusual, but an account of Johnson’s phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday was extraordinary in its breach of diplomatic protocol.

Attributed to a Downing Street source, it accused the German leader of taking a new and harder position that made reaching a deal “essentially impossible”.

Merkel’s office insisted she had no new position, however, while EU diplomats point out the bloc’s transparent approach to Brexit contrasts starkly with London’s closely guarded policies.

The briefing came just hours after a similar anonymously sourced tirade against Ireland in the Spectator magazine.

It accused Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of reneging on previous promises over the toughest part of the Brexit talks, those related to the Irish border.

The source is widely believed to be Dominic Cummings, a combative figure who worked with Johnson on the Brexit campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.

Now a top Downing Street adviser, he has previously been reported to have called the EU negotiations a “sham”.

Johnson spoke to Varadkar on Tuesday evening, and his office said they both “strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal”.

A Downing Street source said the tough talk was “a deliberate strategy” to warn EU leaders hoping Johnson would take a softer approach that this would be a “serious misreading of British politics”.